We start this story with a discussion about fiction.
What it boils down to is this: Holmes says that life is stranger than anything a person could make up (this is funny because, of course, Holmes's "evidence" that truth is weirder than fiction is a story that the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, invented).
Holmes says that the fascination of life is all in the details: broad-stroke accounts like a newspaper or police report always skip the really cool stuff going on under the surface of common experience.
Holmes offers Watson some snuff (a kind of tobacco you sniff) out of a jeweled case, a gift from the King of Bohemia for his help with the Irene Adler case (see the first story in this collection – and kudos to Sir Arthur for his attention to continuity from one story to another).
Holmes complains that he has no exciting cases on hand. But maybe that's all about to change, because Holmes sees a woman across the street walking back and forth and looking up at his Baker Street apartment window. Is she a potential client?
Yes! She suddenly darts across the street and rings Holmes's doorbell. Holmes suggests that her case is an "affaire de coeur" (affair of the heart in French; Identity.13), because when women hesitate in front of his door, they generally want advice but are too shy to ask for it – a sign that it's a matter of love.
So, the lady comes in, and we find out that her name is Miss Mary Sutherland.
Holmes performs his customary magic: he asks her whether she finds her shortsightedness an issue when she does so much typewriting? Sutherland says, yes, at first, but now she knows where the letters are on the keyboard – but how did Holmes know that she's a typist? Holmes just says, "it is my business to know things" (Identity.17). He has trained himself to see what others overlook, and how can he help her?
Sutherland wants Holmes to find the location of one "Mr. Hosmer Angel" (Identity.18). Sutherland has heard of Holmes's all-around awesomeness and is pretty mad because her stepfather, Mr. Windibank, isn't taking the disappearance of Mr. Hosmer Angel seriously. So she's decided to take matters into her own hands by consulting our favorite detective.
This stepfather of Sutherland's is only five years older than Sutherland herself; her mom has married a guy fifteen years younger than herself now that her first husband has died.
Sutherland's father was a plumber who left his successful business to his wife after his death. In comes Mr. Windibank, the second husband, and he immediately convinces Sutherland's mother to sell the business for a tidy 4,700 pounds – around $613,000 in today's money. Which is a lot, but, Sutherland says, not as much as the business was really worth.
Holmes asks where Sutherland's own independent money comes from. It turns out that Sutherland had an uncle in Auckland, New Zealand, who left her 2,500 pounds in bonds that pay out a regular 4.5% interest (about 100 pounds, or today's U.S. $13,045 per year). She signs over this income to her parents, since she lives at home and can already get by on the salary she brings in as a typist.
Holmes asks who Mr. Hosmer Angel is.
Sutherland tells the following story: one night, she meets Angel at a "gasfitters" (read: someone who installs and repairs gas pipes) ball, which she attends against the express will of her stepfather.
However, the stepfather has taken off for a week to France, so Sutherland seizes the day and goes to the ball anyway.
There, she encounters Angel, and they go out for a couple of walks together in the week following the ball.
When the stepfather comes back, he doesn't seem upset about the fact that Sutherland has gone to the ball against his wishes. He just laughs and says, in effect, that girls will be girls.
Even so, Sutherland and Angel are both concerned about the stepfather's negative view of women stepping out with guys outside their family circles.
Angel says that, since her stepfather is going off to France again for another week away anyway, it would be just as well for them to wait to start dating again until after the stepfather's departure.
So Angel is also eager to keep their relationship a secret – even though they've been engaged to be married ever since that first post-ball walk together.
The thing is, though, Sutherland has no idea where Angel works (all she knows is that he's a cashier in an office on Leadenhall Street). She says he's too afraid of being teased by his coworkers to receive her letters directly. Sutherland communicates with him by leaving letters at the Leadenhall Street Post Office.
Sutherland also says that: (a) Angel is too shy to walk about with her during the day, and prefers to stroll during the evening; (b) his voice is whispery because he had "quinsy" (a tonsil infection) and swollen glands when he was young; and (c) due to weak eyes, he always wears dark glasses.
Angel insists that Sutherland should marry him before his stepfather comes back, and makes her swear on the Bible that she will always be true to him.
Sutherland (with the strong encouragement of her mother) agrees, but she does write a letter to her stepdad addressed to his French offices (he's a wine importer, by the way), to let him know what's going on.
The letter gets bounced back to her the morning of the wedding. Sutherland assumes that it had just missed her stepdad's departure from France.
The wedding is supposed to take place the Friday before the story takes place, at St. Saviour's Church near King's Cross.
That morning, Angel comes to the house with two cabs: Sutherland and her mom get into one cab and Angel gets into another.
Both cabs arrive at the church, but when the two women look inside Angel's cab, he's not there! The cab driver has no idea where he could have got to.
Sutherland has no clue what can have happened: after all, if she'd loaned Angel money or gotten her personal income somehow legally settled on him, he would have a motive to run away, but as it is, why should he?
Her mother is furious and says that Sutherland should never talk about this whole affair again. Her stepfather agrees with Sutherland that something must have happened to Angel, but he thinks Sutherland should just sit and wait for news.
Holmes tells Sutherland that, tragically, she should probably give up any hope of seeing Angel again. But he promises that he'll figure out what's happened to her lost love. He advises Sutherland not to let this Angel thing ruin her life.
Sutherland answers that she'll be true to Angel until he comes back to her.
Watson comments that, even though Sutherland looks stupid, there's something noble about her faith in Angel.
At Holmes's request, Sutherland leaves Holmes a description of Angel and a bunch of letters the guy wrote to her. Sutherland departs.
Holmes comments that Sutherland's case is pretty clichéd. At the same time, she herself is interesting. Holmes asks Watson to tell all that he observed about her appearance.
Watson replies with a quick list of her clothes, and concludes that she looks pretty well off.
Holmes finally explains that he knew Sutherland was a typist because of some creasing on her sleeves. He knew she's shortsighted because he observed some dents in the skin of her nose from a pair of glasses (called "pince-nez"). Her boots are buttoned incorrectly, showing that she was in a hurry when she left the house.
As for the letters Sutherland passed to Holmes, the really striking thing is that all of Angel's are typed – even the signatures. Watson has no idea why this matters, but Holmes says it's the key final clue to the case.
Holmes writes a letter to an office in London and another to Sutherland's stepfather, asking him to come to Baker Street at 6pm the next evening,
Then Watson heads back to his medical practice to do the job he's actually getting paid for.
Watson comes back to the apartment the next evening and finds Holmes snoozing, surrounded by tubes of chemicals: he's obviously been doing experiments all afternoon.
Watson asks if Holmes has solved the mystery; Holmes thinks Watson's talking about some kind of salt that he's been working on. Sutherland's case (unlike the salt) is totally obvious, says Holmes – the only thing that's really a shame about it is that there's no law on the books to punish the person who's broken Sutherland's heart.
They hear a footstep from the front hall, and in comes Windibank, Sutherland's stepdad. He's a man of about thirty, with piercing eyes.
Holmes presents Windibank with a typewritten note Windibank had sent in reply to Holmes's own letter, agreeing to come to Baker Street at 6pm that evening.
Windibank apologizes to Holmes. He says Sutherland is hard to control, and she should never have bothered Holmes with a private matter like Hosmer Angel's disappearance, which Holmes has no chance of solving.
Holmes replies, uh, no, I know exactly where Hosmer Angel is. I've got a sample of a typewritten letter from "Angel" – and I have a similarly typewritten note from you. They are definitely from the same typewriter!
Windibank – now exposed as "Angel" – protests that what he's done isn't illegal.
Holmes is like, yeah, well, it's still mean: he's totally messed up his stepdaughter's life.
What Windibank has done is this:
He married a woman much older than himself (Sutherland's mother) to get at the mother's money. He also has free access to Sutherland's income as long as she lives in her mother's home.
Windibank knew that Sutherland (who's warm-hearted and also rich) would probably marry soon – which would mean her stepfather would lose access to her hundred pounds a year.
So, in cooperation with Sutherland's own mother (that's the worst part, in our minds) Windibank pretends to go to France so that he can disguise himself as "Mr. Hosmer Angel" and attend the gasfitters' ball.
Windibank (again, her stepfather – ick) pursues Sutherland and proposes to her, with the intention of making her so in love with him, and so confused about Angel's fate when he disappears, that she won't be able to look at another guy for years to come.
Holmes is so angry at Windibank's bad treatment of Sutherland – since there's no law to punish him with – that he threatens to beat the guy with his whip (which has been just lying around in his living room, we guess? What exactly has Holmes been getting up to?).
Windibank runs out the door and down the street ASAP.
Holmes laughs and says to Watson that someone as bad as Windibank will end up getting hanged for some terrible crime at some point. (So there'll be karmic justice for Sutherland, at least.)
He explains to Watson that he knew Angel and Windibank were the same guy because they were never in the same place at the same time, and Angel was so obviously disguised – sunglasses on all the time? Walks only at night? Totally obvious! So Holmes just had to figure out who would have a motive to keep Sutherland single, and he came up with her own parents.
That letter he sent to an office in London? That was to Windibank's office, in which he asked them if the description of Hosmer Angel that Mary Sutherland gave Holmes matched Mr. Windibank's appearance. They answered that, yes, it certainly sounds like Windibank. So that's independent proof that they're the same guy.
Watson asks what Holmes will tell Sutherland, and Holmes says – oh, nothing! She wouldn't want to believe him, anyway, and would be angry at Holmes for stealing away the illusion of her beloved. So that's that – nothing to be done.